Chronic corruption must be rooted out.
The appalling negligence that left more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate sitting for more than six years at Lebanon’s port in Beirut, just waiting to explode, perfectly if tragically encapsulates the official corruption and incompetence in a country where almost everything that can go wrong does go wrong.
The huge explosion that resulted last week killed at least 200 people and left 300,000 homeless and a vast landscape of destruction. Beyond the human carnage, the blast also struck a devastating blow at a country already on the brink. A government structure designed decades ago to balance Lebanon’s mosaic of religions and cultures had become a coterie of sectarian cliques more interested in protecting turf than running the country.
Exacerbated by the pandemic, the chronic corruption and misrule had brought the economy to ruin. For months now, prices have been soaring. Bread and medicines are in short supply, trash has been piling up, the currency has lost 80 percent of its value since October and a once-glittering middle class has been sinking into poverty and despair. On the day of the explosion, protesters tried to break into the energy ministry to protest daily power cuts, which often limit electricity to a few hours a day.
It is no wonder that furious protests erupted, with demonstrators demanding no less than a clean sweep of the country’s ruling elites, up to the president and Parliament. “HE KNEW” was scrawled over one image of President Michel Aoun hoisted by a protester, an accusation that referred as much to the presumption that officials were aware of the time bomb on the city’s waterfront as to the chronic need to radically change how the country is run.
The demonstrations prompted Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his cabinet to resign on Monday. But the crisis is too deep to be resolved by a change of management. For one thing, Mr. Diab had been installed only in January to replace a prime minister forced to resign by protests last fall over the government’s failure to provide even basic services. Though he has since been asked to stay on as head of a caretaker government, Mr. Diab stepped down more out of frustration than contrition, declaring in his resignation speech that after witnessing the extent of corruption, he intended to join the protesters “and fight the battle for change alongside them.”
Foreign governments have rushed to offer humanitarian assistance. But it’s a measure of Lebanon’s loss of faith in its leaders that some commentators and demonstrators have warned foreign donors not to channel their funds or aid through the government. Over recent months, talks with the International Monetary Fund on a rescue plan for Lebanon’s economy have gone nowhere, as sectarian leaders have persisted in arguing for their own interests.
That gridlock traces its roots to the creation of modern Lebanon in 1943, when it was decided that certain offices would always be held by adherents of certain religions. The arrangement was reaffirmed and updated at the end of Lebanon’s long civil war in 1990, when seats in Parliament and various official positions were parceled out among the various Muslim, Christian and Druse populations. In those same years, the militant Shiite organization Hezbollah gained effective veto power over the government and drew Lebanon deep into the power struggles of the Middle East.
The immediate cause of the economic collapse was a shortage of dollars, which the central bank had been acquiring by offering ever-higher interest rates for large deposits. What amounted to a state-run Ponzi scheme collapsed when depositors stopped coming, soon driving down the value of the Lebanese pound and prompting long lines of people trying to get what dollars they could out of their accounts.
In November, the World Bank warned that if the Lebanese government didn’t act, half the country could soon be living in poverty. And that was before the pandemic: Human Rights Watchhas since warned that millions of Lebanese residents, including more than a million Syrian refugees, were at risk of going hungry. But the government, or what government there is, has been incapable of overcoming its inherent gridlock.
The question now is whether the explosion, by so cruelly exposing Lebanon’s political and economic bankruptcy, can become a turning point in the country’s fortunes. Other Arab uprisings against entrenched power structures have shown how difficult these structures are to uproot, and Lebanon’s web of sectarian groupings is better adapted to tinkering with the power-sharing formula than trying to change it.
The best outcome, obviously, would be a government that commanded the respect and confidence of both the Lebanese people and foreign powers and institutions — most likely a government of technocrats and not of partisan politicians. With the United States under President Trump basically sidelined from most world affairs, the task of lifting Lebanon out of its quagmire must fall to European and Middle Eastern powers, as well as the I.M.F. and the World Bank. President Emmanuel Macron of France, whose country administered Lebanon after World War I and guided it to independence, has been consulting with Lebanese and regional leaders on the formation of a new government, and his efforts ought to be given broad international support.
But no Lebanese government will succeed in righting the nation’s profound wrongs unless new ways are devised to run that complex land. That’s a long shot. But if there’s nothing left for the bosses to steal, and nothing left for people to lose, it’s now or never.